Here’s the premise: Chloe Norris is a down-to-earth doctor’s daughter, sent by various circumstances to help out the Keeson family who are planning a ball to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of younger daughter Lady Mary. It seems a simple enough business, but Chloe finds herself thrust into the midst of awkward family tensions. Matriarch Lady Montrose is superficially friendly but ruthlessly domineering. Lady Mary is curiously uninterested in her marriage. Older sister Patricia is sunk in grief for her recently deceased husband, ignoring her daughter Emilie. Younger son Ned Keeson is an outrageous and determined flirt. And then there’s Ivor, the eldest son and Earl of Montrose, who seems very drawn to Chloe. But Chloe’s betrothed to navy man Captain Bertram Otley, so that will protect her from unwanted advances, won’t it?
Chloe’s arrival is the pebble in the pond that sets ripples in motion. She starts by making friends with the sadly neglected little girl Emilie and gradually draws both the sisters out of their self-absorption. And Ivor finds her a refreshing change from the women in his usual circle of acquaintances. Chloe has no drawing-room accomplishments, apart from an ability to sew a hem, but she’s well read and intelligent and can hold her own against him over the chessboard. He holds himself aloof from the world, burying himself in estate work and physical labour with his workers, but Chloe draws him out of himself.
Now, apart from Chloe’s engagement, which has been in existence for five years and must therefore be presumed to have run aground, there’s absolutely no obstacle to these two getting together whenever they please. Ambitious Lady Montrose doesn’t like it, of course, but Ivor’s a grown man in full possession of his fortune, so that really isn’t a problem. Somehow, however, the romance chugs along at the speed of treacle (molasses for US-ians), with Chloe trying to keep her head down and not tread on any snooty matriachal toes, Ivor gradually making up his rather sluggish (in emotional matters) mind and said matriarch lobbing hand grenades at them.
Chloe, it has to be said, is something of a Mary Sue, in that pretty much everything she does turns out well, she never blows her top or walks out in a huff or shows the slightest crack in her perfect Regency ladylike composure. Even when she gets into trouble by allowing Emilie to get caught in a downpour, it’s because she was so engrossed in entertaining the child. She is just a tad too perfect, but still a very sympathetic character as just about the only normal (and unselfish) person in the whole household.
Ivor is a more believable character, that staple of the Regency novel, the silently brooding nobleman. I disliked his utter obliviousness to his sisters’ unhappiness, and his rather cowardly way of hiding away from his mother. He was also pretty arrogant in assuming that Chloe’s engagement would easily be set aside for him. He was so confident of success that he told everyone that he was going to marry her before he even proposed – and this to a woman already betrothed!
Of the other characters, Lady Montrose is a bit of a cliche, the snobby, ambitious and manipulative mama, but very well-drawn and never losing her smarmy outward appearance until the very end. The two sisters lacked backbone, especially Mary. I usually have very little time for characters who realise they’re making a hideous mistake but are quite prepared to go ahead and make it anyway, but in this case I totally got the point that it was easier just to give in and do what was expected rather than fight it out with mama. Patricia is slightly over the top, but still a believable woman quite overcome by grief. Ned is also slightly over the top as the irrepressible flirt, but even he is so terrified of his mother that he resorts to extreme (and ungentlemanly) measures to thwart her matchmaking. The writing is excellent, with just the very occasional Americanism, although I laughed so hard at the settee in the rose garden! No, just no.
In the end none of these minor quibbles mattered at all, since I was totally swept up in the story. It’s not profound, but it’s a charming traditional Regency with a range of interesting characters and a very satisfactory romance. Five stars.